PATCHES OF ICELAND: Making Tracks

MYVATN TO SEYDISFJORDUR – 13 November 2015

I woke up before my alarm to check on my beer soaked phone that had been sleeping if off in a bag of dry rice. It was 7.30am, still pitch black outside, but luckily my phone lit up the room. The rice trick works! A celebratory breakfast was in order and our fancy hotel did not disappoint with the most sumptuous breakfast spread we’ve encountered so far. After we’d had our fill, we gave the car a fill too from the adjoining petrol station and hit the road in the half-light of mid-morning towards the Viti crater in the Krafla range on the other side of Myvatn Lake.

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Mid-morning fuel stop

It was my turn to drive. The internet (www.road.is) had pre-warned us that the roads were icy and slippery so I was pretty nervous. I’ve never been what you might call a natural-born-driver. I’ve never owned a car. I don’t even automatically know my left from my right. But in recent years I’ve made concerted efforts to overcome the old narratives in my head about my driving capabilities and I’ve come a long way. I can now jump into just about any car with confidence, I have more faith in my navigational skills (and gratitude for improvements in GPS technology!), and I’ve even driven on the opposite side of the road in both Italy and France. Driving around Iceland in these conditions fills me with the exact kind of fear that I know I can and must conquer to evolve to the next level.

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Pipeline gateway

With all that in mind, I pulled out slowly (probably too slowly) and surely and made tracks. The closer we got to Viti, the faster and thicker the snow fell. It was as exhilarating as it was terrifying. Parking was a great relief and jumping out of the car was pure joy as we found ourselves alone in swirling snow at the edge of a crater. In warmer months its holds an impossibly blue lake, but today its contents was frozen solid and snowed over. We were giddy with the beautiful strangeness of it and danced around for no one else to see.

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Viti crater and frozen lake
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Snow folk

As they say, what goes up must come down and it’d been quite a steep incline to the top. Driving back down felt more perilous, especially as the brakes crunched and the car slid regardless. Stopping just wasn’t an option and so I held my breath and kept on until we rejoined the ring road and headed out of town. For the most part, the #1 road that circumnavigates the country sticks close enough to the coast but the stretch that spans the distance between the north and the east coasts cuts through the interior which makes for more inhospitable terrain. Nonetheless, I found my stride and soon loved every second of moving us through the spectral landscape, starkly rendered in the black and white of the road and snow.

Patches McGee-9880We pulled over to swap drivers but also just to take a moment to truly be amongst the brutal beauty of Planet Iceland. To say it’s like nothing and nowhere we’ve been doesn’t go anywhere near far enough – that could just as easily describe a million other imaginable scenes – but this was beyond imagining and even beyond experiencing if the landscape itself didn’t somehow expand your ability to perceive it. The only way to truly describe it is F@ck!ng Yes!!!

Patches McGee-9902We continued with Karina at the wheel. She is a natural-born-driver and now not only in her element but also amongst the most surreal elements of nature that either of us had seen – the snow crisscrossed and swirled across the road like the stirring of a witch’s cauldron. It seemed to have intention of its own, casting spells of enchantment on all who dared pass. Not that many did. We barely saw any other cars the whole day which was both reassuring in terms of not slowing traffic with our tentative driving but also concerning at times when the road disappeared beneath the snow creating a total white out including us in our white car.

Patches McGee-9906At one point we saw a car pulled over on the side of the road with its driver absent. We slowed to a stop when we discerned a figure someway off in a field of white, figuring he might need help. As he made his way towards us, we could see he was carrying a tripod – ah, a photographer – but as he got closer, two things became clearer: 1. He was very handsome, and 2. That wasn’t a tripod… it was a rifle!!! Luckily he had a disarming smile and had only approached us thinking we might need help. It turns out that he and his friend were out hunting ptarmigan – a bird that’s brown in summer but turns white in winter. It’s considered a Christmas delicacy but it’s illegal to trade in them and hunting them is restricted to a few weekends a year – this was clearly one of them because as we continued on our way, the snow fall thinned as the traffic thickened with more hunters off in the winter wilderness. As vegetarians, Karina and I fancied the bird’s chances!

Patches McGee-9933The snow turned to slush turned to rain turned to clear skies as we pulled into the comparatively uninspiring town of Egilsstaðir – the biggest city to the east with a population of not even 2,500. Our GPS assured us we were just 15 minutes away Seyðisfjörður which by its own description is “Quirky, Charming, Fun, Funky, Lively, Lovely, Different, Friendly, Creative, Historic, Peaceful, Artistic, Beautiful, Open Minded, Active, Bohemian, Natural, Special”. Karina and the car both had enough fuel in their tanks to get us there and so off we set. Besides, after all we’d seen and experienced today, what could 15 more minutes reveal? I’ll tell you what! A great hulking, slip-and-slide of a mountain!

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As quickly as we had descended out of snow to normal terrain, we ascended just as suddenly, though more unexpectedly, back into it. Because we were heading towards the coast however, the snow had become icy-slush so deep that we didn’t even know if we had contact with the road at times. Daylight was fading fast and I was so glad Karina was driving. I think she was too. She seemed to be enjoying the thrill ride that had me clutching the dashboard.

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Over the hill, not far away

By the time we skidded into town, we were in desperate need of three things:

  1. petrol
  2. booze
  3. thermal water

Without looking at a map, we were able to spot the petrol station so pulled in, filled up and pulled out again only to find the Vínbúdin(bottle shop) a couple of doors down. We pulled in, filled up and were about to pull out before thinking to look up the address of our home for the night… it was directly next-door. It’s a small town.

Our home for the night is the simple and elegant Post Hostel Guesthouse and we are its only guests. The manager turned up to give us the keys and then leave us to our own devices… which was, first and foremost, a bottle of well-earned wine before crossing the last item off our list.

Sundhöll Seyðisfjarðar may not have the grandeur of the Blue Lagoon or the Myvatn Nature Baths but our senses had taken as much as they could handle so the understated local swimming pool vibe was perfect. We squeezed into tiny hot tubs with local families and couples and let the day melt away. We sat in the sauna and let off steam. We floated about it the thermal pool, chatting away allowing our friendship to find new depths.

Once again warm, we headed back to our private hostel and made dinner in our pyjamas, with which we enjoyed the last of our wine. Knowing the bottle shop was next door; we threw our coats on over our pjs and made a dash to procure some more only to find it closed. It’s a very small town. One that I look forward to seeing in the light of tomorrow.

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Snow woman
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